Colum McCann won the 2009 National Book Award for Let The Great World Spin, a sprawling novel that links 11 different characters in a meditation on time, death, and perspective. His follow-up, TransAtlantic, adheres to a similar formula, connecting several stories through crossing the Atlantic Ocean from Ireland to North America (or vice versa). Like its predecessor, TransAtlantic is epic in scope, encompassing many perspectives and generations. While McCann’s particular milieus shine, the book never quite manages to come together.
Taking place in three countries and a half-dozen different time periods, the novel traces two histories: that of a particular family as well as Irish-American relations in general. Starting with the world’s first transatlantic flight, before jumping backward and forward in time, McCann shows how woven together modern American and Irish identities are, from the influx of immigrants in the 1800s to the Good Friday Agreement. The first section of the novel focuses on three specific trips to Ireland: the first flight across the Atlantic, Frederick Douglass’ journey to preach abolition and buy his freedom, and U.S. Senator George Mitchell’s peace brokering between North and South in the 1990s. The Duggan family finds itself in the background of these stories, witnesses to these men and their accomplishments, while the second section of the book tells the history of the Duggans themselves, tracing how brief encounters with the men like Douglass and Mitchell impacted their lives. McCann manages to place the worldly and domestic side by side, showing how each affects the other.
McCann is universally acclaimed for his prose, and the writing in TransAtlantic is no exception. Like his characters, his words are meditative, able to beautifully detail the quiet scenes of life and the pain of loss. As he passes through each generation of the Duggan family, starting with matriarch Lily, he creates a collective history, where a simple phrase can easily suggest all the events that came before any particular moment. It’s impressive how little time he takes to accomplish such a feat, fitting so many histories in a few hundred pages.
Yet while each section is beautifully written, TransAtlantic never feels like a complete story. Perhaps that’s McCann’s intention: He wants to simply consider different points in time instead of weaving them into some greater arc. The book accurately traces the reverberations of events, but it’s not clear what, aside from some historical cause and effect, links certain parts of the book to others. The result is a tale that is moving, but ultimately a little unfulfilling, more interesting in concept than in execution. There’s no cathartic force in the novel, and it ends with little more than a shrug.
But even without a cohesive element, TransAtlantic is still a fantastically depicted journey from the past to the present, and perhaps the most interesting primer on U.S.-Irish relations ever created. McCann should be commended for working on an epic swath of history in the wake of winning a much-coveted prize. That he does not quite reach his goals is a testament to their scope.